Old Photos: The Secret Ingredient to Discovering Family History

By Maureen A. Taylor

You’re probably wondering what I mean by photo clues being the secret ingredient.

Think of your family history as a recipe. In my grandmother’s terms, that would consist of a pinch of this and a pinch of that. Genealogy is the same way: We look at documents, manuscripts and photographs for information. It’s how these things come together that helps you tell the story of your family.

For instance:

  • The details you find in a census record, added to what you learn in an old letter, can tell you who’s who in a mystery photo.
  • Or … the hat, sleeve or prop in a photo identifies a time period that sends you scurrying for more details on your family’s lives in your favorite genealogy database.

Pictures really are the secret ingredient. Sure, you can test your DNA and find a census record, but photos are a visual link to that data. They enable you to look eye to eye with an ancestor. It causes goosebumps just thinking about it.

Here’s how it works: Let’s think about sleeves for a second.

Look carefully at the design of this sleeve. The slight fullness at the shoulder and the tight lower sleeve suggest a date of circa 1889.

Now, let’s look at the whole image.

Collection of the author

This young woman is wearing the latest fashion, from the hair piled on her head to the shape of her bodice and the drape of her skirt. All confirm the date of 1889.

The imprint states that the photographer, A. Marx, had studios in Frankfurt and Hamburg. The photo album prop is a nice touch, but we don’t know if it’s significant to her family or just a photographer’s prop.

If this were your family photo, you’d know the following:

  • It was taken in either Homburg (Hamburg) or Frankfurt.
  • It shows a young woman, likely a teenager.
  • You (might) know who gave it to you.

Each of those clues is part of the recipe, as is the date of the image. You might next research the history of those cities to understand why your ancestor left the area.

You’d also gather what you know about your family history—and determine whether you need to find out more–so you can answer the question: Who’s the right age to be this girl living in that part of Germany?

You might know immediately who she could be. Now try to find another picture of her later in life to see if the faces match.

You can learn more about dating clothing from Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats and Hairstyles 1840-1900. Both available at Family Tree Shop.

That picture might help you tie up a piece of unknown or confusing family history. It’s all in the details of the secret sauce that make family history so fascinating.

Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now
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